Manchester Orchestra was formed in Atlanta, Georgia in 2004 while guitarist/singer/songwriter Andy Hull was completing his final years in high school. The indie band is currently composed of Hull, Robert McDowell, Chris Freeman, Tim Very and Andy Prince. They’ve released an early EP as well as four studio albums, not including a ‘reimagined’ release of their most recent album Cope.
Their original EP, You Brainstorm, I Brainstorm, but Brilliance Needs a Good Editor, was released in 2005. Although it was small, consisting of only five tracks, this EP put Manchester Orchestra on the map and made all their other albums possible. They’ve made a name for themselves via their extremely distressed subject matter and emotional songwriting. This album was no different. The very first track ‘The Procession’ already introduces the aspects of Manchester Orchestra that I have come to know and love, with quiet instrumental and heart wrenching lyrics as Hull muses “this disconnected phone, well, it’s seldom to speak, although when it does it’s so harsh and complete…” making way for an absolute chaotic breakdown. This set a nice precedent for the rest of the band’s career.
I’m Like A Virgin Losing A Child (2006) was the band’s first full-length album and it’s an absolute riot of emotional outpouring. Hull approaches every track passionately and to the point of absolute aggravation, somehow managing to be wistful and violent at the same time. ‘Now That You’re Home’ is a prime example of this, jumping right into the action with a flurry of guitar riffs thickening under Hull’s croon of “Now that you’re home won’t you rescue me? I’ve been trying so hard to be good again.” The album seems to revolve around the theme of family and all of the aspects connected to it, such as death, childhood, adolescence, and relationships. It’s incredibly easy to form an emotional connection with this content as it explores family from almost every angle before ending with ‘Colly Strings’, a song so harshly sad it makes you wonder.
Their second studio album Mean Everything To Nothing was released in 2009 and marks the pinnacle of Manchester Orchestra’s career in my opinion. They kept the same emotional level as their last releases but also refined their technique considerably. Their instrumentation is infinitely beefier and rougher, forming into a new genre that can only be described as Southern grunge blues. One of the prime tracks ‘Shake It Out’ provides a stomach-swallowing intensity that makes this album stick out, the orchestral drops tightening a firm grip around your heart. Heavy with religious signifiers, ‘I Can Feel A Hot One’ calms the album down considerably as one of the only quiet tracks, contributing an added effect of restraint, almost like a throwback to some of their earliest tracks. The album ends with a hidden track ‘Jimmy, He Whispers’, a track I can only describe as, well, spooky, waxing poetic about monsters and ending the entire album with the line “We’re brothers until we die”.
Simple Math, released in 2011, is a very underrated album. Hull was only 23 when the album came out and essentially wrote the entire project about his own experiences as a young man in his early twenties trying to navigate all of the new aspects entering his life. The result is an incredibly intimate album. Unfortunately, the technical mannerisms seem to have developed some sort of contention against the band’s normal emotional continuity, which drags the album down somewhat.
Manchester Orchestra bounced back when their final studio album Cope was released in 2013. They followed up with Hope, a complete surprise and essentially just a re-imagining of Cope, in 2014. If Mean Everything To Nothing was their prime album, Cope is their climactic conclusion. Its name is ironic, as the entire album doesn’t seem to involve Hull, or any of the other band members, coping with anything. Intricate melodies and semi-cryptic lyrics place it solidly in Manchester Orchestra’s comfort zone. They definitely moved beyond it however, with the content. In the past, their more aggressive albums have been offset with quiet tracks here and there. Cope seems to be exclusively loud. Hull’s unique voice seamlessly glides over a near-constant crescendo of instrumentation, describing feelings of inadequacy, frustration, doubt, and of course, coping. Most of the songs seem mildly repetitive, such as ‘See It Again’, which ends with the phrase, “Didn’t mean to talk about blood, didn’t mean to bother both of you, didn’t really need to say much, didn’t mean to talk about blood.” If anything, I believe this adds to the album, effectively mirroring the scattered thoughts of a person learning to let go.
Manchester Orchestra is one of the forerunners in their genre, despite the fact that that is always changing as well. They’re very versatile and seem to have a song for everyone. I expect big things from them and rarely am I disappointed however, more like anxiously awaiting their next project. In the meantime, they’ll hopefully continue to grow and evolve as a band, giving fans another surprise to look forward to.